With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!
Presidential Gender Watch is a project borne from a desire to ensure that the role gender plays in our elections is not overlooked. We look at the subtle (and not so subtle) ways gender influences candidate strategy, voter engagement and expectations, media coverage and electoral outcomes in the race for the nation’s highest executive office.
Lately, there’s been no need to read between the lines. First, feminist icon Gloria Steinem made headlines by saying that young women support Bernie Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” When Madeleine Albright used her signature “there’s a special place in hell” line at a Hillary Clinton rally the same weekend, the media coverage snowballed into a non-stop dissection of the generational divide between millennial feminists and their second-wave elders. Just recently, Sanders surrogate Killer Mike was dubbed “sexist” after quoting activist Jane Elliott’s line, “A uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.”
Over the past two weeks, we’ve been barraged by an onslaught of pundits analyzing and reanalyzing these events and the role of gender in election 2016. We’ve taken a breath. We’ve let the media coverage sink in. We’ve read the analyses of almost every political writer in the country. And we’ve realized something important: we are getting an incomplete picture of the political landscape.
Recently, the conversation has focused on different forms of the same question: Should women vote for Hillary Clinton simply because she is a woman? While these conversations certainly add value to the discussion about the role gender plays in American politics, the underlying premise of the question is flawed. Few people, including Clinton, have ever advocated voting for candidates along gender lines. Instead, those citing the importance of electing a woman president nearly universally note gender as one among many credentials for officeholding. Clinton herself told an audience in July, “I’m not asking people to vote for me simply because I’m a woman. I’m asking people to vote for me on the merits,” adding, “I think one of the merits is I am a woman. And I can bring those views and perspectives to the White House.”
Arguing that gender is one of the merits on which candidates may be evaluated does not promote identity over merit; instead, it presumes there is merit in identity. Research on gender and representation backs up that presumption. The identities with which we navigate and experience the world shape our perceptions, priorities and perspectives. Clinton’s identity as a woman is just as worthy of evaluation and consideration as Sanders’ identity as a man or Trump’s identity as a CEO. Most importantly, no candidate brings any singular identity with them to candidacy or officeholding; the class, race/ethnicity, sexuality, age and ability of each candidate—among other identities—all contribute to the distinct ways in which they experience, view and interact with the world.
Likewise, and of equal importance to recent conversations, women are not a monolithic voting bloc. Race, class, sexual orientation and ability—in addition to age—all impact women voters’ motivations and preferences. And we can’t forget about political party preference, especially because partisanship usually trumps gender. So many of the discussions around women voters in recent weeks have been blind to these intersectional identities, analyzing differences among women voters along one axis—generation—and within the Democratic Party only.
With this in mind, and primary voting already underway, Presidential Gender Watch is asking our political experts to take on the daunting task of unpacking the current state of women voters in the 2016 election. On Tuesday, we’ll be hosting a conference call to explain women voters’ influence to date and provide an outlook for the role that women voters will play in the remaining primaries and general election.
In a 24-hour news cycle, where simple messages are often the ones that break through, this call provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the complexity of women voters, and learn about the distinct motivations influenced by different ideologies, ethnicities and generational groups. When it comes to understanding the full impact of women voters in this election—it’s complicated. Join us tomorrow, Feb. 23, to learn more.
Photo via Shutterstock
Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar
Adrienne Kimmell is executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.